Female college students exceed government-suggested limits on weekly alcohol consumption more often than male students do, according to a new report by researchers at Harvard University.
Men and women are starting on something of an uneven playing field. In 1990, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the National Institutes of Health, suggested that men drink a maximum of four drinks daily and 14 drinks weekly. The guidelines for women suggest that they max out at three drinks a day and seven drinks a week.
"Recommended drinking limits are lower for women than for men because research to date has found that women experience alcohol-related problems at lower levels of alcohol consumption than men," says Bettina Hoeppner, a Harvard Medical School professor and coauthor of the study, published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research Friday.
The study followed 992 college freshmen over the course of two years—researchers found that women were more likely to exceed the weekly guidelines than men, and that over the course of the study, men tended to exceed weekly limits less often, while women didn't show the same decline.
"With women's greater tendency to exceed weekly guidelines than men, there may be long-term implications for women in particular," the study suggests. "Women are at a greater risk than men of engaging in drinking habits during college that are more likely to result in long-term harm."
Hoeppner says that the weekly limits are designed to prevent future health problems due to excessive drinking, such as liver disease and breast cancer. Of students who had had at least one drink during the first year, 60 percent of men and 64 percent of women reported exceeding the weekly guidelines at least once.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control warned about the increasing number of women and girls who binge drink and said that it's an "under-recognized problem."
"It is alarming to see that binge drinking is so common among women and girls, and that women and girls are drinking so much when they do," Robert Brewer, head of the CDC's alcohol program, said in a statement.
Though many high-profile campus deaths seem to concern male students pledging fraternities, there have been several recent alcohol-related deaths involving women. Last month, Ali Fausnaught, a student at West Chester University, died when she fell off a third-story roof in Philadelphia during a party where underage students were allegedly drinking alcohol.
Colleges have begun to crack down on underage drinking, monitoring drinking at football tailgates, hiring additional police officers, and some have even added additional classes on Fridays to cut down on Thursday night drinking.
The Harvard study suggests that colleges should do a better job of educating students about government drinking guidelines.
"For many at-risk drinkers, the NIAAA drinking guidelines may seem unrealistically low and could potentially result in the loss of credibility [among peers]," the report suggests. "Nevertheless, excluding weekly limits from discussion could be a missed opportunity for lifelong learning."